Walmart Workers Plan Rowdy Black Friday Protests

walmart_strikeNationwide, Walmart workers are preparing for a series of Black Friday strikes, which will take place later this week in California, Florida, Minnesota, Washington, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.  Click here to find more Black Friday protests near you.

The worker’s rights group planning these activities, OUR Walmart, wants the biggest shopping day in the U.S. to become more widely known as a day of action for employees in the retail sector. The group has been mobilizing communities across the country to participate.

“Be expecting things this Friday… but there’s nothing specifically I can mention,” said Los Angeles-area Walmart worker Anthony Goytia, noting that activists want to take the company by surprise.

Wrongful Termination

The Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW), which launched OUR Walmart, reports that 30,000 employees participated in Black Friday protests and activities last year.  Most from that group participated as supporters, while 88 were strikers, spread out across more than 20 stores. Dozens of additional “mini-strikes” have been staged in the intervening year, the longest of these lasting for nine days. Out of that worker advocacy, over 100 employees have experienced retaliation, and 20 have been fired.  Employment attorneys and wrongful termination lawyers have been working with these individuals to file claims for those unlawful employment practices.

In the biggest strike thus far, more than 80 workers in Florida walked off the job on October 18—catching managers as well as OUR Walmart (which didn’t organize the protest) by surprise. Employees were protesting unfair employment practices from their managers, and demanding a standard 40-hour week. Walmart defines full-time as 34 hours.

Unlike earlier Walmart strikes in which just a handful of workers walked out, the October 18 incident created a large work stoppage and thus won impressive gains: 40-hour schedules, larger raises, the transfer of a highly unpopular manager, and even pay for the hours spent on strike.

Unfair Pay Practices

Walmart is increasingly known for its stampede-like shopping events and major discounts on Black Friday; some sales even start on what has come to be known as “Gray Thursday.” For workers, those night-before hours mean they must give up their Thanksgiving holiday to prepare the shelves for shoppers.

One Walmart employee in New Haven, Connecticut, wrote: “On Thanksgiving Day the employees were told they HAD to work 1:00pm to 10:00pm and then on Black Friday we were told we HAD to be there at 8:00 to 5:00…Thanksgiving Day is for family.”  Robbing workers of family time is another blow to a workforce already overworked and underpaid. Goytia is scheduled to work 12 hours on Thanksgiving, and so will only have early morning Thanksgiving to spend time with his loved ones.

Even without the holiday work hours, Walmart employees suffer from being grossly underpaid, with the majority trying to scrape by on minimum wage. In the Canton, Ohio store, workers recently came into the employee locker room to find a wall of plastic bins labeled: “Please donate food items here so Associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner.”

One employee snapped a photo and anonymously sent it to OUR Walmart, characterizing the situation of having to collect handouts for Walmart employee dinners as “demoralizing.” The photo went viral, and seemed to reveal that management is aware of its workers struggle to make ends meet.

Meanwhile the Waltons are reportedly worth $89.5 billion in 2010—more money than the lower 42% of Americans combined—and have only boosted their wealth since the recession, now estimated to be $144.7 billion.  One commentator on a website showing the food drive photo wrote: “Do the donation bins clash with the decor of the executive offices?”

Low, Low Wages

The recent debate over Walmart wages has tarnished a company that already serves as a piñata for many critics of corporate greed. For example, Goytia claims that he will only make around $12,000 this year. His family relies on food stamps and Medicaid, and he sells plasma to keep food on the table for his kids. This only adds insult to injury; over the last holiday season he had to hire a Workers’ Compensation Attorney  after he was denied medical benefits for an on-the-job injury.

Stories like this are legion. In response, Walmart is using its massive advertising bucks to defend its public image. In a talk last year at a Goldman Sachs conference, Walmart CEO Bill Simon boasted that 475,000 Walmart employees make more than $25,000 a year.  Yet OUR Walmart was ready with a rebuke, and calculated that this still left 825,000 of Walmart’s 1.3 million employees making less.

Walmart won’t disclose pay figures – why would they? – but managers insist that they pay an average of $12.83 an hour. But that average is certainly misleading since it includes management such as CEO Mike Duke, who earned $20.7 million in 2012.  The more realistic estimates project an hourly pay of around $8.80 for employees on average.

The think-tank Demos recently published a report titled “A Higher Wage is Possible” which points out that Walmart spends over $7 billion every year just to purchase shares of its own stock—a practice engineered to tighten control for big investors like the Walton family members, who already own more than 50% of the company.

If Walmart put an end to the buybacks and diverted that money toward worker pay, Demos showed that each hourly employee receive a raise of $5.83 an hour — sufficient to put them all over the $25,000-a-year mark—without increasing store prices at all.

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Emery Reddy